Thousands of Rockford Public Schools students will head into summer with skills to learn about the natural world around them.
They have developed these skills thanks to an expanded science curriculum at RPS 205 and a deeper partnership with Severson Dells Nature Center. Each year, about 3,700 school-aged children visit Severson Dells for field trips, according to Ann Wasser, director of education and research for the nature center. About 70 percent – or nearly 2,600 students – are from Rockford Public Schools.
What they learn at Severson Dells reinforces the inquiry-based learning skills in the Next Generation Science Standards and K-12 science education at RPS 205.
At Severson Dells, Wasser and her staff began overhauling its curriculum for field trips last spring, emphasizing the scientific method – doing observations, making hypotheses and collecting evidence. For example, students might survey plant and bird species in the field and discuss how the numbers have changed over time and why. They might identify invasive species, such as honeysuckle, buckthorn or multiflora rose, and discuss how a diet heavy in these plants might impact animals.
For the last few years, RPS 205 has been on the same path, preparing students at all levels to think like scientists. It's an inquiry-based approach to learning that challenges students to explain an idea or concept, using sets of data and their content knowledge.
High school students in RPS 205 must now take three years of science rather than two, which is one more year than the state mandate. A new required course sequence in high school covers content aligned to the national science standards, assuring all students will graduate with a foundation in the principles of biology, chemistry and physics.
But it's about more than learning from a textbook, says David R. Allen, dean of science for the district. Experience outdoors – like students get at Severson Dells – offers a perspective that's irreplaceable. It's hard to convey the real-world in classroom lessons about biodiversity and pollution, Allen said. Being at a place like Severson Dells allows students to learn science by doing science. Students learn to think critically about how some of the choices humans make impact animal habitats.
"If you wait until sixth grade to talk about some of these things, it's too late," Allen said.
Students can read about invasive plant species, but they can see their impact at Severson Dells. "We have boatloads of honeysuckle, which no matter how hard we combat it, will never fully disappear," Wasser said. They can also see relic plant species, such as the Canada yew, which are slowly disappearing from the area.
"This is real stuff," Allen said. "Kids don't see that stuff enough, and we won't get that across from their textbooks."
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